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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Ben Wildavsky

To: Diane Ravitch, Richard Rothstein, and Kevin Carey

Subject: Ravitch misunderstands the roles of charter schools, teacher professionalism, and bipartisanship in education reform.

Diane, I appreciate your spirited rebuttal to my essay. I’m not surprised to hear you repeat what you say in your book--that you have no objection to the market economy per se (although you somewhat undermine your case when you toss around silly phrases like “corporate suits”). It is the entry of market principles into public education that bothers you. Schools, you say, are like firehouses and police stations, not shoe stores. To give teachers extra compensation based on effective job performance undermines the fundamentally cooperative nature of schools. And so on.

You are quite right that markets are no panacea, contrary to what John Chubb and Terry Moe once wrote. I did not claim that markets have such magical powers. It seems to me that we should regard markets as an enabling condition for the changes that public education badly needs. Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has made this case eloquently, arguing last week that both choice and accountability “provide invaluable opportunities to rethink schools and systems that are too often hobbled by anachronistic policies, practices, stifling contracts, and cultures.” Accountability and choice, then, are simply means to an end.

You chide me for allegedly ignoring evidence that charter schools, on average, don’t perform any better than conventional public schools on the NAEP. I never said they did. It’s widely acknowledged that, so far, charter schools have been highly uneven in quality. But that doesn’t mean the charter principle is a failure. For one thing, charters can be closed down for poor performance (although this hasn’t happened often enough). For another, the quality and motivations of charter authorizers matter a lot to charter success. As charter laws were enacted, political pressures--notably union pressures--put many of the entities opposed to charter schools in charge of them. Washington, D.C., is a great example. Two charter authorizers were initially established. One was the regular school board, which had no love of competition and permitted a number of terrible charter school to operate with little or no oversight. The other, an independent board established just to authorize charters, came to be highly regarded and now oversees all of the city’s charters.

Overall, charters seem to have done no harm, and, in a number of high-profile cases, they have done a lot of good. As you know, there are many efforts underway to study and replicate the very best charter chains--just what one might expect in, well, a market. We’re still in a period of experimentation. But the flexibility of the charter philosophy--and the availability of comparable achievement data across schools--permits educators to try new things and to measure whether they’re working.

Even as you disparage the performance of charters, you complain (echoing a longstanding claim of Richard’s) that they cream the most motivated parents and students, leaving the neediest kids in regular public schools. Isn’t this a contradiction? If your assertion is true, wouldn’t we expect charters to outperform regular public schools? The allegation of creaming also raises an important philosophical question--in fact, a moral one--that Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research touched on at the AEI forum where you spoke last week. Isn’t it preferable for some kids to have superior alternatives than for all kids to remain in underperforming schools? If you could wave a magic wand and get rid of charter schools, including the KIPPs and Achievement Firsts, would you really be doing kids in those schools a favor by sending them back to the crummy institutions they escaped? It seems to me that we can simultaneously provide appealing charter options that will cause some students to exit while doing much more to meet the educational needs of the kids who remain in regular public schools.

Moreover your support for Catholic and other private schools seems, at the very least, in tension with your worries about the most motivated students picking charters. Is it fine for some big-city families--whether working class or well-to-do--to forsake regular public schools for Catholic education or expensive private schools, but not OK for their lower-income counterparts to move to charters? Would it perhaps be tidier and less corrosive to communities to ban private or nontraditional public schools entirely, just as we would never tolerate letting the, uh, corporate suits take over the fire department?

I also think you overreach when you suggest that the consensus that exists around the broad strokes of school reform is mostly an elite phenomenon. As you detail in your book, testing, accountability and choice have won broad bipartisan support. No Child Left Behind, let us not forget, was not just a Republican creation; it was cosponsored by Ted Kennedy and George Miller, and it passed Congress by a huge majority. Those members of Congress represent the American people, no? Similarly, secretaries of education Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan were appointed by presidents who campaigned on detailed education policy platforms, so voters were surely not kept in the dark about their plans. In my view, one of the most refreshing characteristics of the education reform movement is that it largely transcends party and ideological affiliations. Broadly speaking, there is considerable continuity between the Spellings and Duncan regimes at the Department of Education, and, to the extent that there are differences, each has played against type--Republican Spellings focused intently on top-down accountability, whereas Democrat Duncan seems to have greater faith in markets. Think tanks, editorial boards, and corporations have certainly taken an active interest in all this--why shouldn’t they?--but education reform has been part and parcel of the democratic process.

Moreover, it is hard to buy your contention that teachers have somehow been left out of the consensus. On the political front, at last report, teachers' unions were huge political players at the federal and state levels, contributing vast sums to Democrats in particular and occupying inordinate numbers of delegate slots at party conventions. The political process is what makes education reform possible, and teachers cannot plausibly claim not to have had a seat at the table. If their complaint is that it is uncomfortable to make the adjustments required by hiring and firing systems that give principals more autonomy, or by accountability regimes that put them under greater pressure to show that they have succeeded in teaching students material required by state standards, I am not sure that automatic sympathy is in order. Change is hard, as any reader of the management bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? can attest.

You say that you want American education to become “more professional.” But, if you care about professionalism broadly writ, shouldn’t teachers face consequences if they are doing a terrible job teaching kids? You acknowledge that it is hard to fire tenured teachers, but you seem sympathetic to unions’ assertion that they simply want “to be part of the decision-making process” when a colleague is at risk of being fired. You say that union members have good reason to care about performance, because it is not in their interest “to have incompetent teachers in their midst.” But it is hard to see much evidence of teachers rallying together to dismiss colleagues who simply shouldn’t be in the classroom. Au contraire, part of the premise of teacher unionism is that teachers are more or less interchangeable. Hence the widespread and dismaying phenomenon of union-negotiated salary schedules that are based only on “step and scale” pay increases, where time on the job and degrees accumulated are all that matter, not actual job performance. This is not professionalism.

Returning briefly to Massachusetts, I understand--and I wrote--that you have high praise for its record. What I don’t understand is why you want to implement your own reform plan rather than urge others to build on the Massachusetts model and its commendable mix of standards, testing, and choice. Your plan, based on “professionalism,” neighborhood schools, and a stronger curriculum, is, as Kevin pointedly observes, rather ill-defined. The Massachusetts plan has a great track record so far. Why shouldn’t that be your new gold standard?

I’ll conclude this round of debate by touching on Richard’s claim that your support for NCLB was an “aberration” given your continued involvement with groups such as the Core Knowledge Foundation, which does great work to spread rich, substantive curricula. But, as I said in my opening piece, there need not be a contradiction here. There is no reason that both strong content and strong core skills can’t be taught, and assessed, from the beginning of children’s school days. You open your chapter on teaching with a lovely remembrance of your tough-love high school teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, and the appreciation of literature that she instilled in her pupils. But I couldn’t help wondering--how will kids stuck in sorely inadequate public schools ever appreciate Shelley’s “Ozymandias” if they can barely read?


By Richard Rothstein: Want to improve teacher quality? Fine. But that won't help the environmental factors outside of schools that are eroding student learning.

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, forthcoming in May from Princeton University Press.